The two best novels in the M.R. James Tradition are Fritz Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness and John Gordon's The House on the Brink. Since the first of these [gets] thorough coverage in Ghosts & Scholars, it seems only right that we should also examine the second and its author. I would like to thank John Gordon for agreeing to be interviewed by me last year . As you will discover from the following, he has some unexpected views on the James Tradition and, in particular, the relationship of his own writings to it.
When and how did you first encounter the ghost stories of M.R. James?
I seem to have known them all my life; they seem as familiar as nursery rhymes or, more appropriately, the tales of the Grimm brothers. Fairy stories certainly feed an inborn fascination with horror and the supernatural, You only have to think of little Hansel being fattened for the table, or Bluebeard with his cold store where he hangs up the corpses of his wives. They are, for me, alongside M.R. James, part of the pattern in the carpet - the nursery carpet, if I'd ever had a nursery.
Not that anyone would ever confuse a James story with a fairy tale. For one thing, you know the teller; the stone-faced Authority of fairy tales gives way to a voice that is human and insidious, a particular voice addressing you in particular. It's in the details. Hansel pokes his finger through the bars of his cage so that the witch can test his plumpness, and that brings on qualms enough in any listener, but not with quite the same knowing incisiveness, the sickening nudge given by the details of the bathroom in "Lost Hearts". The bathroom door has a drably curtained window, but the boy who peers in through a chink sees that the bath is lead-lined, surgical rather than hygienic. James is inviting us to watch, and gloat over, what happens there. He doesn't actually say what that may be; there is no need for him to do so - because we already know. James has forced us into colluding in unspeakable possibilities.
Even in your first book, the Alan Garner style fantasy The Giant Under the Snow (1968), the Leather Men show a Jamesian influence. Was this intentional? If not, when was the first time you deliberately set out to write in the James Tradition? If it has never been deliberate, then when did you become aware that you were unconsciously doing it?
It was you who opened my eyes to MRJ's influence on the stories I write. Until you pointed it out in G&S it had never crossed my mind, and I must have digested him more thoroughly than I thought because I am still, thank goodness, completely unaware of it when I'm writing. It wouldn't do to have MRJ looking over my shoulder, but I do see, now, that there is something Jamesian about the Leather Men in The Giant Under the Snow. However, when I was writing the book, the Leather Men came about this way:
The children in the story had to travel through a drear winter forest and, like all writers, I put myself in their position, saw what they saw, and felt what they felt, then sought the words for it. Trees have branches that divide into twigs like fingers... what if they reached out to grasp? And what if the trunk of a tree was the trunk of a man, shrunken with age but still able to move? His skin would have shrivelled to look like bark, but it would have to be supple, like leather... and so a Leather Man walked.
James didn't seem to come into it, nor Alan Garner because I had not read a word of Garner before I wrote the book. But I have read him since, and I admire him greatly. Like James, he is part of the climate, and the influences of both are pervasive.
What about your use of Jamesian story-writing techniques?
I am much more aware of owing a debt to MRJ there. It is something to do with significant detail and the power of understatement. He plays off one against the other, playing a game with the reader at the same time, never quite revealing all. It takes a master to do it.
He works against a very solid background. Everything rings true. You know that behind him there are libraries containing books you've never guessed at, where only a scholar of his learning has the keys, the knowledge of magic words, to unlock the secrets of forgotten, and forbidden, texts. It's a privileged world which he subtly subverts. First of all, we learn that the secrets are malign; secondly, he allows the crust of this settled world to crack and the malevolence to radiate. What it truly is that escapes is another question, but the genius of MRJ is the masterly fashion in which he works by suggestion, calmly tweaking at vulnerable nerve ends, releasing fears that anyone would have hoped were buried for ever.
He does all this in "Lost Hearts" and even more pointedly in "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" where the scholar is never quite sure whether the threat is from an actual presence on the beach or is from within his own mind... but anyone could truthfully say to him: "You are certainly haunted, my lad." Incidentally, while Jonathan Miller's television version of the story picked up the bleakness of the beach and the scholar's torment wonderfully, why was the menace, the beckoning crooked finger of "my lad" dropped from the title?
Detail and understatement are at the core of "The Mezzotint". There is the slow dawning in a librarian's mind that the empty foreground of the print contains a figure, and that it must have entered from the bottom edge of the picture frame for it is moving by stages from the foreground to the house in the middle distance. The story is focused on the meticulous examination of a detail in a single picture, and the librarian and a group of friends study it inch by inch - yet they do nothing except to observe and record. They do not spread the word around - the mezzotint is no Turin Shroud - they carry out some scholarly detective work into the provenance of the picture and discover an historical event that has a bearing on what happens, but by then the figure has vanished and never appears again. And so it is rounded off; a ghost has as much explanation as a ghost is ever likely to have and, although a mystery remains, the story itself is satisfyingly complete.
That succinct completeness is something that storytellers aim at in one form or another, and James's way of achieving it is something for any writer to study. "The Mezzotint" is comforting, too, in that the group of people who are in the know, apart from suffering a little uneasiness, are untainted by a terrible deed and unaccountable events. Superficially comforting. James is far too good a storyteller to leave it at that. While the figure is moving, something else is going on at the same time.
The creature in the print moves, literally, frame by frame - not so much a movie as a magic lantern show, giving the onlookers plenty of time to study detail. Still pictures are more potent than movies for voyeurs; they linger longer. And James knew very well, consciously or unconsciously (and I'd go for the latter), how to play upon the voyeur in all of us.
He makes strong use of pictures - the sepia drawing in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", the painted glass in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", and there is a true magic lantern show in "Casting the Runes". It frightens a group of children out of their wits and sends them stampeding from the room. I find this particularly powerful because I knew a Baptist minister who would insert living insects in his slide projector and watch their images on the screen as the heat killed them. He did this in Bible classes with some spurious educational excuse. There are still Mr Karswells among us.
How would you respond to my suggestion that your "Kroger's Choice" (1980) is the only Jamesian science fiction story ever published? In it, the ghost of an ape takes ghastly revenge upon a man who is the recipient of her heart in a transplant operation. It seems to me to be an original and interesting pastiche of "Lost Hearts". Even if you didn't realise this at the time, would you agree with me now in seeing a link between the two tales?
I would be extremely proud if "Kroger's Choice" were the only Jamesian science fiction story, but I'm not qualified to judge. MRJ could very well have been the guiding hand while I was writing, giving a form to what was uppermost in my mind. At the time I was reacting to the publicity surrounding the first heart transplants, the sentimentality and the soap opera glamour that overlay what were straightforward, very dangerous experiments. And I was wondering how far we were prepared to go in plundering other creatures for our own benefit; perhaps even to the extent of breeding more and more humanoid apes who, in the end, would be a special race of ourselves bred only for spare parts. It was the Eloi and the Morlocks, ostensibly more Wells than James, but the retribution, if it's not too conceited to say so, would have been approved by James.
You have written both novels and short stories within the supernatural genre. Which of the two formats do you prefer?
I enjoy writing both novels and short stories. Long or short, they are all stories. Sometimes a single room is enough, at other times you want to explore the house.
In The House on the Brink (1970), you produced what most people agree to be one of the greatest novels in the James Tradition. What is your reaction to the praise which the book has received in Jamesian circles? Did you realise you had written something rather special?
I am absolutely delighted that it should attract so much attention from Jamesians, and very flattered that it can be mentioned alongside his work. It's very difficult to judge one's own work, but I do remember that my publisher was surprised when he read the manuscript, as nothing I'd previously written had prepared him for it.
When I wrote The House on the Brink I was following up a route I'd opened for myself with my first published story, The Giant Under the Snow. I had moved from the pure fantasy of The Giant to writing about the time in everyone's life when you suddenly realise that the real world is more mysterious and magnificent than the static wonders of fairy tales. And for me that meant Wisbech in Cambridgeshire, and the Fens. My school was on the south bank of the River Nene, directly opposite the sweep of handsome house-fronts on the North Brink. At the centre was Peckover House, a beautiful but not particularly grand Georgian house built by a banker. I had never been inside it because it was still occupied by a member of the Peckover family, but I found it mysterious and fascinating, as many things were, particularly girls. So The House on the Brink became a love story, two love stories, and so doubly outside James's chosen area.
The link to MRJ came as a surprise, when it was pointed out - but then I suddenly saw that, love stories apart, I was in a Jamesian landscape and something very malign was in the fabric of the house, waiting to be discovered.
The book revolves around King John's lost Treasure and a mysterious object, apparently a sinister black log or post, that leaves a trail across the Fenlands. This motif is uncannily similar to a scene in MRJ's manuscript story draft at King's College (which I eventually published as "John Humphreys" in G&S 16). Here the central character observes a "black and glistening" post in a field, which is not there when he returns the next day. I think you once told me that you had not seen the MRJ draft prior to writing The House. Is this so? Do you have any thoughts about the coincidence?
I had no knowledge of the stump in the field in the "John Humphreys" draft until you published it in 1993. When I read it I felt I was again walking along the precise path I followed in writing about Peckover House - and James had been there before me. Once upon a time I'd have argued I found my own way there - but now I'm not so sure!
And there was already a strange link between the house, a stump and the story. Some years after publishing The House I was asked to write an article about its background [for Puffin Post in 1972], so Sylvia and I went back to Wisbech to look at the North Brink again. Peckover House is now a National Trust property and I hadn't visited it for fifteen years or more, certainly not during the writing of the story; this was almost a point of honour with me because I was dealing with what was in my mind and I did not want it disturbed by 'facts'. But I found that I had some of the details right, and there was, in fact, a long garden at the back. But what I did not know, because I had no recollection of ever having been there, was that the garden was linked to a series of other gardens taking up the space behind other houses on the Brink. So we explored them, and there, on the far side of the last lawn, under a tree, stood a stump.
It looked exactly like the stump in my story, which is actually the mummified body of a man. It turned out to be a broken stone column, but at its top and almost worn away by time and weather, there were the vestiges of a carved face in the same place as the head of the dead man would have been. It stood on a plinth with an inscription that said: "The White Cross of The Low". We asked the curator what this meant and she said that the column was the shaft of a medieval stone cross which had stood in a road called Low Side behind the house. So far so good. I hadn't mentioned our purpose in being there, but then she added something that tied it uncannily close to the story. She said that at some time in the last century the stump had been found in the river mud outside the house and had been brought in along the route that the mummified corpse had taken when it had wrenched itself from the river mud to threaten the woman who lived in the House on the Brink.
The idea of King John's Treasure having such a guardian is very Jamesian. Did you make the guardian up, or is it an authentic Fenland legend?
You are quite right that it is a Jamesian idea. But there's no Fen legend that says so: I made it up.
All of your fiction has been aimed at a teenage market. Why is this, and have you considered writing for an adult audience?
I keep trying to 'make it new', which is why I don't look for influences and why I write so much about people under the age of twenty. When you are that age, you are as bright as you're ever going to be, as intelligent, and just as likely to be right in an argument as when you're fifty. All you lack is a bit of experience, but you're certainly working like hell at getting it.
However, I expect to stop being adolescent any day now and write a story for grown-up persons, because I like to entertain, to enter into a conspiracy of enjoyment with a reader. If this conspiracy is going to work it's got to have a bit more than cheap thrills - though why anyone should despise a cheap thrill beats me; surely a cheap thrill is a bargain, an added extra.
So what else motivates your stories in addition to the (perfectly respectable) urge to entertain and provide cheap thrills? What is your own attitude to the supernatural?
There are cross-currents and hidden things in any decent story. One of the best things about ghosts is that they are immortal, by definition. Something of us survives - the question is what and how. The attribute that distinguishes us from everything else in creation is that we have a long perspective on death. We are absorbed by it and obsessed with discovering ways to defeat it. One of the symptoms and symbols of our predicament is the ghost. One day we shall learn how to survive death, and Gilray's Ghost , which is a story and nothing else, has something about how it may come about - in a walking stick.
Do you think MRJ will continue to be an influence (if only unconscious) on your work?
I do seem to have wandered into MRJ territory quite often and it's true I feel at home there, with his bookish gentlemen in their comfortable houses. Not that I'm one of them. I could never be at ease with a servant, for instance, or assume that the 'working classes' could be as respectful - and unintelligent - as MRJ makes them. And I'm nowhere near so wary of women as he is. But he was a transgressor, and I like that. He supported that comfortable, static, well-mannered society, but he seems to me to be continually tempted to step outside to taste some forbidden, dangerous delight. And, each time he does so, some dreadful entity he has disturbed leaps out and clings to him like a demon lover. We all have felt the same terror; he has the genius to make it pose disturbing questions.
The Edge of the World (Fontana Lions, 1985)
The Ghost on the Hill (Kestrel, 1976; Peacock/Puffin, 1977)
The Giant Under the Snow (Hutchinson, 1968; Puffin, 1971)
Gilray's Ghost (Walker, 1995)
The House on the Brink (Hutchinson, 1970; Peacock/Puffin, 1972)
Short Stories and Collections:
The Burning Baby and Other Ghosts (Walker, 1992)
Catch Your Death and Other Ghost Stories (Patrick Hardy, 1984; Magnet, 1985)
"Kroger's Choice" in Ghost Stories, ed. Deborah Shine (Octopus, 1980)
The Spitfire Grave and Other Stories (Kestrel, 1979)
Copyright (c) 1996 Rosemary Pardoe and John Gordon.
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